Entrepreneurs: Seab is giving green light to the world to convert food waste into energyComments Off on Entrepreneurs: Seab is giving green light to the world to convert food waste into energy
London is open for business. That’s the message Mayor Sadiq Khan spent a busy few days pushing in the US last month — and Sandra Sassow has rapidly reaped the rewards.
Representing her green-energy start-up Seab, she was part of the 30-company trade mission that toured Chicago and New York, schmoozing dignitaries and investors. “There were people who were sitting on the fence who came over the line as a result, so we’ve got two new contracts,” she beams as we meet in the offices of London & Partners, the Mayor’s international business arm. An office in the Big Apple is now on the agenda.
Sassow’s business is both complex and extremely simple. Using 20ft shipping containers with intricate kit inside, she hopes to help businesses cut down on emissions by converting food waste to energy on-site, using anaerobic digestion, to power the buildings they neighbour instead of burning carbon driving it to landfill. The mission is potentially lucrative as well as noble, but Sassow is pragmatic: “Corporates will only do green if it makes business sense.”
When I suggest it’s perhaps not the most glamorous way to earn a living, she faux-bristles: “What’s not sexy about my shipping containers?” she laughs. “My family background was in base-product chemical manufacturing, so pretty smelly and dirty work on products that go into your toothpaste and shampoo. Not everything in life can be beautiful — you’ve got to be able to go to the back of the building and see what’s going on. We all have this magical concept that we bag up our waste, take it outside and it goes away.”
Sassow believes that many of our societal and corporate habits in disposing of waste are entrenched and — as the Standard’s Food for London waste campaign highlights — need to be addressed.
“The UK transports food waste the equivalent of six times round the world every day. It’s very difficult when you’ve got a rolling stack of trucks the city has invested in, or a facility the Government has co-invested in, to say ‘that’s perhaps not the right solution for the future’.”
Turnover: £800,000 last year, £2.6 million forecast for 2016
Business idol: “My dad was anamazing man. He left Russia during the revolution, then Germany because of the Second World War, set up a successful business in France, migrated to the US in 1950Fifties and ended up with a listed chemicalscompany”
Sassow’s master plan, with her husband and co-founder Nick, is to target the growing urban centres of the developing world — in Asia, South America and Africa — and get her tech designed into big infrastructure projects.
At the moment, a handful of test sites, including at a UK hospital and a Portuguese supermarket, stand as proof of concept. A project in Minnesota sees subsidised housing, designed to enable artists to afford to live in the urban environments, powered by Seab’s tech. At nearly £500,000 in some cases, the containers aren’t cheap. “You need to find customers willing to do something new and support you,” says the entrepreneur, dressed in a cowboy-ish poncho.
Sassow’s route to becoming an eco-warrior (she admits she spends plenty of time lobbying her cause) was an unusual one.
Born in France and raised in New York and Washington with a thick American twang to her accent, she began her career in coding and worked on the guidance systems for the Hubble space telescope. On the job, she had one of the very first laptops and worked on satnav systems for military dune buggies — which she can’t tell me about, for fear it’s still classified. Roles at fintech and rating-system start-ups followed.
Moving to the UK in 1994, she led the international division of an imaging software firm in London and eventually moved to the New Forest, and then Winchester.
She has four kids, aged from 13 to 26, and spends her time at Seab’s Canary Wharf offices, its base in Southampton Science Park and travelling the globe to meet clients.
She and her “ideas man” husband chat shop at home. “The kids say ‘we’ve gotten our business degrees over the dinner table’,” she explains. It’s been a long road for the duo. An initial approach with a scattergun of ideas (smart lamp-posts that detect their environment, virtual power stations) was refined when grants were rejected. After getting the grants, and using personal funding, they spent four years testing their bottle-green containers and bringing them to market.
Now, with everything set up and ready to go, conquering America may just be the start.